The mood amongst students is a “barometer” for that of society as a whole. The famous events of May ’68 in France demonstrate clearly what is meant by this: protests by students in Paris led to repression from the police, which in turn resulted in a generalised revolt of the working class.
Years of accumulated anger amongst workers and youth against the growing inequalities in French society suddenly burst forth, leading to a wave of strikes that rapidly spread across the country. At its peak, this revolutionary movement saw over 10 million people take part in a general strike – the biggest in history. Ordinary workers and students organised committees to run the factories and universities. Dual power existed, and the overthrow of the government seemed likely. In the end, a betrayal of the workers by the leadership of the French Communist Party and the trade union allowed the movement to be defeated, but the events of May ’68 show what is possible when students and workers unite and fight.
The movement of students in 1968 was not confined to France. Mass movements of students and youth took place in the USA and UK, with occupations of many universities in protest against the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, in Poland and Czechoslovakia, students were a vital force in the movements against their Stalinist regimes. All of these movements were a prelude to the massive struggles of the working class that took place in the 1970’s across the world.
Education in Britain today
Recent events in Britain show that a similar ferment exists amongst students today. The wave of university occupations in early 2009 against the war in Gaza, along with more recent (and larger) occupations against cuts and course closures in Sussex and Middlesex universities, are an indication of the mood of anger and frustration that exists today. The situation is similar across Europe, with a number of large protests against the privatisation of education in countries such as Spain, Italy, France, and Germany, as well as occupations of universities across Austria by thousands of students. Meanwhile, the international movements against war, climate change, and fascism have also seen the involvement of millions of youth.
Young people today are facing ever increasing contradictions in relation to higher education. Confronted with a fiercely competitive jobs market, many young people are seeking to go to university to avoid unemployment. However, at the same time, the previous and current governments have announced over £1.4bn in cuts to higher education in order to reduce the budget deficit and satisfy the financial markets, with university vice-chancellors being warned of a 35% cut in funding. The result is that at least 150,000 people will miss out on a university place this year, according to the head of the university admissions service.
Faced with such a funding crisis, the Tory- Lib Dem coalition are likely to raise tuition fees to at least £5,000 per year, with some suggestions that fees may rise to over £7,000 per year. The final student debt for those entering university this autumn is estimated to rise to £25,000. With such dire financial prospects looming, more and more students will be forced to take up part-time work to fund their studies. Meanwhile, job prospects for graduates aren’t getting any better either: latest figures show that 10% of graduates from 2009 are still unemployed, with 69 applicants seeking every graduate job.
The cuts facing higher education are not just affecting students. An estimated 22,000 jobs in higher education are at stake as a result of the cuts to funding, including both lecturers and support staff. This has led to a number of strikes by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) across the country. As jobs are cut, those staff that remain will be increasing overburdened with work, thus reducing the quantity and quality of support that students receive.
National Union of Students
The accumulation of these contradictions has led to the beginnings of a qualitative change in unions representing students and education workers. As mentioned above, the UCU has already become increasingly mobilised in the fight against cuts. However, it is in the National Union of Students (NUS) that the most interesting changes can be seen. Less than a year ago, many on the left had written off the NUS as a campaigning organisation, saying that it was inactive, ossified, and moribund. However, if the NUS were truly a dead organisation, then what we are seeing now must be a resurrection. In recent months, the NUS first organised a “cuts conference” last June, which was then followed by the announcement of a joint national demonstration with the UCU on November 10th in London to protest against the cuts to education. A joint demonstration organised by the NUS and UCU marks a real step forward for the movement. Students should mobilise on campus and link up with other local unions, such as Unison and PCS (who represent public sector workers), in order to ensure a strong, united presence of students and workers at the demo.
It must be pointed out, however, that the leadership of the NUS still has far to go. Firstly, the democratic structure of the NUS has been eroded in the recent period with less time for discussion at the annual national conference and fewer delegates from each institution. Secondly, the NUS leadership tries to paint the picture that cuts are inevitable and unavoidable, and that we must somehow accommodate the cuts. Finally, the official position of the NUS is in support of a graduate tax to replace tuition fees, a position that fails to recognise that higher education does not only benefit those who actually go to university; for example, qualified nurses and teachers help all of society. Above all, the owners of big business currently gain a great deal from higher education by having a more educated and productive workforce. Higher education, therefore, should at the very least be funded by taxation of big business and the rich, and should be free and available to all. Education is a right, not a privilege.
Taxation of the rich, however, is not enough. These days the money of the rich can quickly be moved, and taxes can easily be avoided if you have an expensive accountant. Meanwhile, we must question why higher education is facing such a funding crisis in the first place? In reality, the contradictions facing higher education are a reflection of the contradictions of capitalism. The current economic crisis has resulted in a huge national debt, and the ruling class of big business and bankers are demanding cuts to all public services in order to reduce the deficit. The call for free education, therefore, must be accompanied by a call for a fundamental change in society; a call for production and the banks to be controlled democratically in the interests of ordinary people; in short – a call for socialism.
No to tuition fees or a graduate tax!
For a democratic, fighting NUS!
Students and workers: unite and fight!